Science Fiction

Review | All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

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If you were looking for a fantasy/science fiction mash up, look no further. Charlie Jane Anders’ new novel, All the Birds in the Sky has you covered, and it’s pretty great.

The story follows two main characters, Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a computer genius. Patricia and Laurence’s relationship ebbs and flows, but one thing seems to haunt them, especially Patricia; the two of them have been foreseen at the end of the world.

There’s a lot to like about this story, but I’ll start with the one that struck me first: the humor. Anders’ story is rife with the kind of self-aware humor that pokes fun at itself and the genre. Guilds of assassins, secret orders, and talking animals are all used with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor that had me laughing out loud and tabbing pages for the first time in a long while.

But, the story engages in a more serious talk as well about what it’s like to be an outsider, how easy it can be to be misled, and the balance between the fantastic, the scientific, and the radical on all sides.

The character building in the story is well-done. The story follows both Patricia and Laurence from childhood to adulthood, with all the rockiness that entails (skipping the awkwardness of high school and college). Most impressive in this was the establishment of trust in their relationship and the ways it would break down. Both characters are flawed and have their own histories from their years apart. This leads to a lack of trust, sometimes for unwarranted reasons. While some of the moments that result can seem a bit cliché, both characters are very human in their response.

The story also features some crazy plot developments and battles with side characters well-equipped to make things both better and worse, including an AI called CH@NG3M3. While it has more of a contemporary love story kind of feel, it also doesn’t shy away from mystery and actions. Overall, there’s a lot to love.

Charlie Jane Anders is the editor in chief of io9.com and the organizer of the Writers With Drinks reading series. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, Lightspeed, Tin House, ZYZZYVA, and several anthologies. Her novelette “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo award.

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Let’s Talk | Digitally Native Award Categories

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Self-published stories aren’t a terribly new convention. People have been paying to have their works released for a long time. But, with the advent of the internet and the widely available platform for author promotion and creation, self-publishing has become a common way for authors to get their works into readers’ hands.

I won’t lie. I have some pretty mixed feelings about the widespread use of self-publishing, mostly that for me it often becomes overwhelming to even glance in the way of self-published authors. The mountain of works simply is so hard to sift through that I often don’t tread very close.

However, there are some fantastic self-published works available online.

The Martian, Wool, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

The standouts in self-publishing show that the publishing method isn’t necessarily reflective of the quality of work.

So, how do we accommodate self-publishing in our awards?

The Martian by Andy Weir is very highly regarded. It’s a well loved story with fans coming out its ears. But, to many SFF lovers’ surprise, it wasn’t eligible to be nominated for the Hugo Award in 2014 when it was picked up for publishing by Crown Publishing. The book had previously been self-published and without heavy revisions would not have been eligible. Crown decided to publish the book very much as-is, leaving the work ineligible and retaining its 2011 publication date.

The problem in awards is multifaceted. By and large, I think it comes down to a few issues: exposure, inundation, and gatekeeping.

Exposure

Self-published authors are often the sole marketers for their books. They are the ones who are responsible for sending out review requests, getting the book available, and making sure the book is in the eyes of buyers, all while having to write, edit, and design the book. This is extremely difficult without the web of connections that many publishing houses have.

On top of all this, many readers continue to go to traditional publishers for their books and for those who may be open to smaller press or self-published works, the lack of in-store browsing ability and the difficulty in making your story available in online suggestion algorithms proves a big barrier.

Inundation

In the event that a reader does manage to find their way into the self-pubbed section of Amazon, or Kobo, or whatever platform they may be using, there are so many self-published works that standing out may prove difficult. Not impossible, surely, but hard to do, especially without an existing strong following.

So, what do we do with self-published works that are deserving of awards?

This is the part where gatekeeping comes in.

Currently, the big awards in SFF (not to mention the broader literary community) are difficult to break into and not structured well for self-published authors.

Often, awards are either chosen by panel, or through a fan or membership nominating system. This leaves self-published works out of the loop. Nominating systems for panel awards often require submission by a publisher, and membership and fan nominating systems tend to still require the same-year publication date requirement, which often isn’t enough time for a popular self-published work to “break out,” and clumps those books together with traditionally-published novels, which have significantly more budget and reach.

Again, here I feel conflicted.

Something about this seems so unfair, as though the cards are stacked against self-published works. However, extending deadlines makes eligibility for self-published works opens up the door to complaints that the work isn’t being judges with its peers or that the system is unfair in the opposite way.

The Hugos did recently propose extending eligibility for books not originally published in the US. This wasn’t overly controversial, so maybe I’m worrying over nothing. I can’t imagine people denying the difficulties in publishing and promoting a book on your own.

But, maybe the Kitschies have it right, but by thee token, a digitally native category implies that self-pubbed can’t compete with traditionally published works in content quality.

There’s a “Digitally Native” category there that seems to have served well. The Kitchies is a panel award, though, so I wonder how that would play in to a fan or membership system.

Regardless, something has to change in order for the community to recognize the self-published works that can blow us out of the water.

What do you think? What rules changes or category additions would best serve this purpose?

Yet again.

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It seems like every week (or more) another person lists the “history” or “best of” science fiction and fantasy while failing to mention women, people of color, or LGBTQIA+ contributors to the genre. Surprise.

I’m not going to mention the particular posts prompting this. Suffice it to say that the past two weeks have been surprisingly full of them ranging from well-established bloggers to bookstore lists.

While I find it difficult to imagine a full picture of science fiction and fantasy that doesn’t (at the least) include the works of Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, or Ursula K. Le Guin, the argument continues to be made that the “highlights” of SFF are largely male.

Rather than raging against the machine, though that certainly has its place and I’m prone to do it, I’m going to highlight some authors you should try out to broaden your SFF horizons. Huzzah!

Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American woman with a sense of the spectacular. Her most recent novella, Binti, is a fantastic examination of humanity at its most complicated. It takes the examination of race, gender, and their intersections to space and succeeds in every possible way. Plus, once Binti makes you fall in love with Nnedi, her backlist will make your soul scream (in a good way).

Genevieve Valentine is an American author and comics writer. She has a wide range of stories, including The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, a retelling of the twelve dancing girls set in the 1920s and Persona, a futuristic political thriller. She’s a highly acclaimed author well worth the check out.

Rachel Pollack is a transsexual woman who has had a large influence on feminist science fiction and fantasy, the women’s spirituality movement, and a wide variety of authors like Neil Gaiman. On top of her novels, she also wrote for DC comics. Her work is pretty surreal, mixing spiritualism with futuristic and fantasy elements. Her Temporary Agency is definitely the place to start for a temperate taste of Pollack’s works.

Angela Slatter is an Australian author. While most of her works are short fiction, included in a number of short story collections and anthologies, you can also snag her stand-alone novella Of Sorrow and Such. She’s fantastic at creating heart-wrenching stories with complicated characters all in a short period of time. She’s got all the awards to prove it, and a contract for a full novel release this year.

 N.K. Jemisin is just fantastic. I’m just going to gush about her for a minute. N.K. Jemisin is an African American author with some amazing talent. Her newest book, The Fifth Season, is easily one of my favorite books of 2015. She blends non-western settings and characters with fantastic magic and world building. Her characters are ridiculously well developed. I can’t get over her. Go read The Fifth Season. You’ll see.

Angelica Gorodischer is an Argentinean author whose works have been translated into English through Small Beer Press. She came into the scene in 2003 by way of Ursula K Le Guin, so you know it’s got to be good. Her stories focus on more than just the typical character and plot driven stories. They are fairytale like, with settings that act on the story as well as on people and a sort of wide-view of fantasy that’s hard to describe. Her Kalpa Imperial and Trafalgar collections are fantastic. I’ve yet to read her newest, but it’s on my list.

Now, I know what you’re saying, “But, Bree, this list is only seven authors and all are women.”

So true. This is far from a comprehensive list. This is only really the authors who came to mind in the 30 seconds following me reading one of the aforementioned articles about SFF being a male domain. More comprehensive lists are definitely out there. In fact, here are links to some fantastic lists of authors:

 

From Fran Wilde: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2015/08/not-so-invisible-ninjas.html

From women in science fiction (blog): http://www.womeninsciencefiction.com/?page_id=54

SF Mistressworks: https://sfmistressworks.wordpress.com/womens-press-sf/

Lightspeed Magazines POC Science Fiction project: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lightspeedmagazine/people-of-colour-destroy-science-fiction

Kevin Hearne: https://t.co/mQZCjoNYr6

Kev McViegh: https://performativeutterance.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/225-rising/

Or, hey, maybe you know those guys. Here is a list of people on twitter (mostly bloggers and authors who promote, read, write, etc. diverse books. The list is short, but I plan on adding to and maintaining it.

https://twitter.com/reev2550/lists/authors-and-bloggers

Please comment below with your suggestions for people to read, blogs to follow, and the like!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review | Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

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Giant robots? Check

Aliens? Check

International conflict and clandestine military operations? Check

Sylvain Neuvel’s novel follows a secret military operation to uncover mysterious pieces of a device. Told in interview transcriptions, the story records a search to find the pieces of and assemble a large mysterious statute that seems to expel large quantities of electricity and nuclear energy. The interviews span a number of persons working on the project including pilots, scientists, the director of the NSA, and are all hosted by an unnamed man masterminding the work.

The characters are interesting, though the format means they are very distant. There is some development, but also a sense of superficiality. While I wanted to like them, it was hard to do so, especially when the main foci are fairly closed off and abrasive. They grow more confidential during the interviews, perhaps uncommonly so, all things considered, but overall some is left wanting.

The plot is fast-paced. It follows the creation of the clandestine operation, many things going awry, and its initial conclusion. The story is a bit truncated. You don’t see the characters in action often. You see the fallout of things that have happened instead. This was sometimes done well, particularly during the aftermath and recounting of some major events. The characters’ immediate reactions are ignored in lieu of a bit more reflective recounting. This was interesting to read about.

The story also skips around quite a bit. This can be a bit disconcerting when you consider that there isn’t a timestamp on any of the transcripts. It could be a bit hard to follow, but did quicken the reading experience.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the story was the complexity of the mastermind’s thoughts. While you didn’t see it at first, there’s a lot that comes together in an “ah-ha” moment towards the end. Some of the story was a bit done before, but that was engaging.

This won’t be my favorite story of the year, but it’s an engaging, fast read.

5 Kickstarter Projects for Book Lovers

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So, I have a bit of a love affair with kickstarter. The platform is fantastic for independent projects and unique works that may otherwise not get produced. BUT, it can be a slog to sort through what’s out there to try and get what you like. So, here’s the deal: I like books; you like books; I saw these and thought of you (and also how cool it would be if they were funded).

 

Victoria Jr. Presents Little Prometheus by Manny Trembley

Cover to Victoria Jr. Volume One

Days left: 9 days

Amount Funded: 404% (into stretch goal territory!)

What’s this project about?

 

Victoria is a human girl adopted in to a loving family of monsters. Victoria Jr. was named by The Monster, after his creator, Victor Frankenstein. She lives in a world of fantastic monsters and creatures.

One day on her way to school, Victoria Jr. decides to capture the mythic “Spark of the Sun”. This is the same spark that the Greek Titan Prometheus stole to give fire to man. She thought maybe the Spark of the Sun could warm the undead hearts of her father, mother, and her younger brother.

Why is it cool?

Are you really asking me why a story about a little human girl living with monsters and trying to warm their hearts is adorable? Or why you should be all about a family-friendly comic?

Aside from the fact that the story sounds awesome, Victoria Jr. pays homage to the kind of stories that are fundamental to science fiction and fantasy. It’s sure to check boxes for SFF lovers and be a book to introduce children into the SFF world in a relatable, unintimidating way.

As a literacy tutor for ESL students, my favorite thing to give the kids I worked with was comics. They’re dynamic and visual, perfect for short attention spans. AND the embedded text makes the story feel like it isn’t work while still encouraging confidence in reading and significant vocabulary growth.

Who is behind it?

Manny Trembley is an indie comics artist with his own self-publishing line of comics. He’s run 6 successful kickstarter campaigns. This will be his second Victoria Jr. book.

What do I get at the lowest award level?

$6 gets you a .pdf of the comic

Bring Dinosaurs Back to Life by Zoobooks

Days left: 16

Amount funded: 66%

What is this project about?

Zoobooks are educational kids’ books about animals and ecology. Unfortunately, the last round of dinosaur books is pretty old. This project is going to update the books with new science and create a set of integrated apps.

Why is it cool?

Dinosaurs. Science. Zoobooks, what’s not to like? Zoobooks were a pretty big part of kiddom in the 90s and 00s. They’ve helped tons of kids learn about science using visuals and intriguing animal subject. They’re committed to keeping their books scientifically accurate, and are fairly accessible through most library systems.

Plus, dinosaur feathers drawings.

Who’s behind it?

Zoobooks, a 35 year old company with tons of books to their name and support from Wildlife Education, LTD.

What do I get at the lowest rewards level?

$10 gets you the app and a series of exclusive updates.

 

People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction by Lightspeed Magazine

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lightspeedmagazine/people-of-colour-destroy-science-fiction/widget/video.html

Days left: 16

Amount funded: 550%

What is this project about?

We believe in science fiction’s transformative powers, its ability to remedy the dreariness of our lives. People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! will exist, with your kind help, of course, to relieve a brokenness we’ve enabled time and time again by favoring certain voices and portrayals of particular characters. We won’t harangue you with guilt trips involving the importance of openly listening to the assimilated, the colonized, the misappropriated. That’s just not how we roll. What we aim to do, instead, is to challenge you: Join us because it is fun to do so. We don’t mean fun as a vehicle for trivializing centuries of injustice that resulted in the lack of representation for certain groups of people because power structures were skewed heavily in favor of a chosen few. We mean fun as the satisfaction we get in those light-bulb-in-the-head moments of our lives, the satisfaction we get from meaningful conversations that lend clarity, the satisfaction we get when we move past those feel-good-driven acts of tokenism, the satisfaction we get when we read stories that have palpable artistic and intellectual values that speak of our present time and most of all, our future.

 

Why is it cool?

The POC Destroy project is about raising the voices of marginalized groups in SFF. It includes a series of fiction and nonfiction writings written and edited by people of color. It includes art, flash fiction, novellas, and author spotlights.

The POC Destroy issue is set with a fantastic cast both of authors and editors including Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl. It’s also open to new voices in SFF. Basically, you need it.

Every extra dollar goes towards stretch goals that increase content.

PLUS it’s a project Lightspeed is committed to. They promised to publish the edition regardless of if they reached their funding goal. That’s pretty damn cool in my book.

Who’s behind it?

Lightspeed Magazine is a Hugo Award winning publication with a ton of experience and a whole series behind it. This project is in line with the DESTROY series which includes Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Women Destroy Science Fiction, and many others.

What do I get at the lowest rewards level?

$5 gets you an ebook version plus all electronic supplementals achieved in stretch goals

 

Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin by Arwyn Curry

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/arwencurry/worlds-of-ursula-k-le-guin/widget/video.html
Days left: 30

Amount funded: 111%

What is this project about?

In the film, we’ll accompany Le Guin on an intimate journey of self-discovery as she comes into her own as a major feminist author, inspiring generations of women and other marginalized writers along the way. To tell this story, the film reaches into the past as well as the future – to a childhood steeped in the myths and stories of disappeared Native peoples Le Guin absorbed as the daughter of prominent California anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and author Theodora Kroeber.

Ursula K Le Guin is a queen of science fiction. She changed the game radically. This project is largely already filmed, but needs a post-production budget. Part of the funding is contingent on non-NEH funding, so here we are.

Why is it cool?

It’s Ursula.

As a total bonus note, all the levels are named after characters from her stories.

Who’s behind it?

Arwyn Curry and her team have made a number of documentaries and written a number of articles for organizations like PBS, HBO, the New York Times, and Rolling Stone.

What do I get at the lowest rewards level?

$10 gets you shout outs and updates

 

Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Dinner Party by Shipwrecked Comedy

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1029702011/poeparty/widget/video.html
Days left: 32

Amount funded: 29%

What is this project about?

Edgar Allan Poe invites all his buddies and loves to dinner. It includes  Hemmingway, H.G. Wells, Annabelle Lee. It’s a video series that will be hosted vlog style with some livestreaming options, over a series of ten videos.

Why is it cool?

This form of storytelling has really been catching on. The format lends itself to interactive audience participation, visible and marked character growth, and innovation in film and story adaptation.

Cast includes Mary Kate Wiles who you may recognize from the Lizzie Bennett Diaries where she played Lydia.

Who’s behind it?

Shipwrecked Comedy has run a number of past projects that have been done in a similar vein.

What do I get at the lowest rewards level?

$5 reward is a digital invitation and livestream shoutout

 

And what goes around comes around, or something along those lines

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Some days it seems that this mess isn’t going to end. For those of you who were tuned in to the Hugo Awards for the last few years, you probably know all about, or at least have heard about the Sad and Rabid Puppy groups. I know. It’s that time again.

A bit of background: the Sad and Rabid Puppies are two groups of SFF readers with a similar proclaimed agenda: to get rid of “Leftist message fiction” and lessen its prominence in the SFF awards system. To do so, last year they encouraged their followers to vote for slates of works put together by their leadership.

This in and of itself isn’t too new or surprising, though it flies in the face of the Hugos intention and the spirit of the award.. The problem comes in with some of the supplementary behavior that have happened: doxxing, harassment, review bombing, and general displays of homophobia and misogyny.

The Sad and Rabid Puppy slates were successful in placing a large number of their slate picks on the Hugos ballot, resulting in a big uproar among Hugo voters who aren’t part of the groups and a large smattering of “No Awards” being selected.

So, here’s what’s going on.

After the Sad and Rabid Puppy events of last year and the subsequent plethora of No Awards in the Hugos, I think everyone was kind of hoping that the problems had died down. It seemed like the entirety of SFF fandom was exhausted, and who could blame any of us?

But, of course, life isn’t too easy and there’s always a round 2.

With the Hugo nominations about to be opened up, the movements are back. It should be noted that the Sad Puppies, the more moderate of the two groups, seems to have backed off of some of the rhetoric and are leaving behind some of the more manipulative tactics of the past year. They have no official slate and their website for the year’s campaign is a list of threads for readers to list suggestions. The suggestions themselves seem to actually take up the majority of the space and are varied (and include Ann Leckie’s works?).

It is the Rabid Puppy group that seems to be the point of contention. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Rabid Puppy group is closely tied to GamerGate and has been known for adoption of some GamerGate tactics.

So, since the 2015 Hugos, two “big” things have happened. First, Vox Day was banned from Goodreads, and, second, some independent bookstores have removed Pupppy-affiliated works from their shelves.

*commence uproar*

So, what exactly happened?

Vox Day and the Puppies claim that they had set up a Goodreads group with the intention of talking about Hugo-eligible works, which was taken down 36 hours later because of the nature of the ideology in their movement (more or less. A link to Vox’s post about it here.).

Other accounts claim that Vox Day and the Puppies were advocating for review bombing. Review bombing is the practice of giving false or spurious negative reviews to a work with the intention of displacing its placement in suggestion algorithms and of discouraging people to purchase or use the work. This would be explicitly against Goodreads’ terms of service. 

Additionally, there are claims that the group had been organizing a way to get its members “librarian” status on the site to take down works they disliked. There are also claims that the group had been harassing persons with this status.

Any of these claims would be reason for Goodreads to take down the group, and depending on the validity of the claims, may be cause to get rid of Vox’s Goodreads account. Both were taken down shortly after the group’s creation.

Vox Day has posted this link with a name of who he thinks is the moderator who got him banned from the site.

The actions have been used as fuel to the fire of “SJWs are against us” claims the group profligates. Puppies have been saying that the policy is inequitably applied and that persons with more left agenda are left alone when behaving the same way.

Let’s be clear: Goodreads was within its rights to take down the group and ban Vox Day. As a privately held company, the behavior was a violation of the terms of service and Goodreads’ enforcement of its TOS is fine. Frankly, I think companies should stick to their TOS.

If there is similar behavior that also violates the TOS on the anti-Puppy side, they should also have their groups taken down.

Is this a vast conspiracy? I doubt it.

The second matter is the issue of bookstores removing Puppy-affiliated works from their stock.

The story popping up has been extremely hard to verify. The rundown looks like this: someone claims that a Jim Hines summary of the Puppies was sent around to Toronto bookstores. The bookstores then took affiliated books of their ordering lists.

It has not been proven.

But, let’s assume it’s true for a minute, which accounts of bookstore stock from people seem to indicate it isn’t.

What constitutes censorship? Should we be concerned?

Censorship is always a complicated topic. We get touchy about the issue and conflate a lot of different things with censorship.

Censorship is when a book or books is systematically made unavailable to the general public, usually with the consent of the government.

A few bookstores refusing to stock a book shouldn’t worry us, especially if those bookstores are independent, which would be the suspected case. Accounts still have Correia and others on the shelf in Indigo stores (the Barnes and Noble equivalent in Toronto), there have been no accounts of libraries removing the books (this is generally against library policies everywhere), and the internet has not ceased to make the books widely available in print and electronic form. So, censorship seems like a particularly unlikely thing to be happening.

No need to fear, Puppy-beloved books are still obtainable.

So, what should we expect over the next Hugos season?

My suggestion would be that, provided we as a community engage with moderates who disagree with us, remain civil, and try hard to rebond with people on the opposite side of the “schism” that is the Puppies, then nothing. We should have a fairly peaceable and engaging Hugos, hopefully with a continued increase in the amount of people voting and becoming active in the community. At least, that’s my best-case scenario. We can make it happen.

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Review | The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin

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I recently finished The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s the fifth in her Hainish Cycle, a series in which a variety of humans and human-variate species are slowly working to create a kind of federated utopia of planets. This particular installment was published in 1974 and received the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards for that year. My edition is the Olive Edition reprint and it sits at just under 400 pages.

The Dispossessed is a key work in the Hainish Cycle. It describes the creation of the Ansible, a communication device that allows planets to communicate with one another in real-time, despite how far apart they are. As a result, the story is key to a number of later stories in the same universe and shines light on some of the stories preceding it, like The Left Hand of Darkness, where the ansible is used.

The Dispossessed takes place in the Cetian system on two planets that are paired together, revolving around one another in a moon-planet like relationship. The main character, Shevek is an Odonian from Annares, a member of a religious-political faction that fled from Urres, the more lush of the two planets, over 150 years prior. Shevek and his fellow Odonians live in a kind of anarcho-Marxist utopia, where there is no central government, and people work communally to do what work needs to be done.

Shevek has spent his life dedicating himself to physics and the dilemma of sequentialism and simultaneity. In a sense, he’s dealing with the temporal aftermath of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and has come to find that his work is stunted on Annares; he’s frustrated by the inability to communicate freely with Urresians and, when the story begins, he is about to travel to Urres, the first Anaresti Odonian to do so since the Odonians left 150 years ago.

In contrast to Annares, Urres is a more typical capitalist and patriarchical society. While Shevek has gone there in search of a kind of eureka moment in his work and to disseminate it according to his ideal of freedom of information, he’s soon to realize that there’s more to the capitalist political system than he had thought and he becomes embroiled in political conflict.

In this story, Le Guin is examining a number of interesting political situations. While clearly critiquing patriarchal structures and the capitalist system, she is also examining anarchim, particularly anarcho-Marxism (the intersection of anarchism and Marxist communism) in the face of extreme resource scarcity. Both fans and critics have pointed to the story as an analogue for United States/ USSR relations in the Cold War. It brings under fire both systems and the use of proxy wars. While anarchism comes out in a more favorable light, Le Guin also points to the difficulty in having a society without government, including the continuation of power struggles that are maintained by natural social structures outside of government structures, the exercise of social pressure as a replacement for a criminal justice system, and the difficulty in providing for society’s needs without bureaucracy supplanting the anarchist system.

The story is interesting, and the plot is complex. Structurally, it’s split between two timelines: Shevek on Urres and Shevek growing up on Annares. This is part of what allows Le Guin to provide multiple criticisms throughout the story without them piling up on one another. It also provides a slow insight into Shevek’s “present” timeline with the problems that faced him before leaving for Urres. Le Guin takes a great deal of time describing the Odonian’s lives and structures. The reader is meant to explore Odonian society with and through Shevek’s growth, and through Shevek’s later observations contrasting Urresti (captialist) society with his own. This also allows the reader to slowly become accustomed to the strange speech patterns and behaviors of the Odonians, and to ease into criticisms of an anarcho-Marxist society that, especially during the Cold War, readers may have jumped to quickly and without examining their own assumptions.

Shevek is out-of-place with his fellow Odonians. Their society has come to a point of complacency with bureaucracy that constantly seems to frustrate him; he has no real outlet to overcome the social and political structures that seem to stifle his work; and he’s significantly more self-isolating than is considered acceptable by social norms. This makes him a very approachable character, not just to the reader, but also to the “true” anarchists and outliers of Anarresti society. Shevek finds himself constantly drawing people who want to challenge the system, as informal as it may be. I liked this about him. I think it was a very successful strategy for Le Guin and really helped the reader to digest what was happening. His fellows call him an “egoizer,” a “profiteer,” and a “traitor.” In many ways, Shevek is more likeable for the taunts and anger he draws.

The science is pretty handwave-y and the idea that a planet can be another planet’s moon was a little silly. But the science isn’t so much the point. Le Guin uses it as a way to talk about freedom of information and intellectual integrity. Shevek is constantly finding himself at odds with his own moral system, and that espoused by both Annares and the Urres. He’s constantly rejected by one and is being misused by the other. His search for a way out of the dilemma is interesting and leads him to take action that may otherwise be counter intuitive.

The side characters are interesting, particularly Shevek’s partner, Takver. Takver is a fish geneticist and the two are often far apart, fulfilling society’s needs where needed, but constantly drawn back to one another. Takver is left to deal with the consequences of Shevek’s studies, her own drive to create and understand, and the bindings of family life often by herself. While she doesn’t have her own point-of-view, she comes off as very strong and perhaps more resilient and accepting than others deserve. Le Guin at times seems like she wants to dive more into Takver’s story, but can’t, which made me as a reader feel frustrated at times.

Overall, I enjoyed the story and its contrasts and comparisons. I liked the characters and the way the story took twists and turns. It’s criticisms were appealing to me, and I liked having more background into the grown of the Hainish universe and its technology and people. I would suggest reading this as one of your first Le Guin books, though I am partial to Left Hand of Darkness, because I think the context it provides helps to make later books a bit more comprehensible.

Have you read The Dispossessed? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Review | Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Aurora is a uniquely skilled piece of science fiction. Robinson blends hard science fiction with a distinctive voice and a fascinating premise. As a result, the story flies by quickly, despite what might otherwise be a slog.

Aurora is a story about a colonization expedition sent out from the solar system. After a 170 year journey, the two thousand people aboard the space ship are nearing Tau Ceti, a nearby star system with an earth analogue planet. Their ancestors took off generations ago to colonize the moon they would call Aurora.

But the ship is falling apart, there’s a noticeable regression among the ship’s population, and tension is becoming ever greater. The ship’s population is about to hit the boiling point.

The story is told from the point of view of the ship’s AI. Devi, the chief engineer–in function, if not in name– has slowly been working on the AI’s self-reflective capabilities and charges the AI with telling the expedition’s story. This is one of the most well executed parts of the book. The AI grows over time. So, while the story has a consistently “non-human” feel, and there is an almost overwhelming amount of technical information, there is also a clear growth in the narrative style over the course of the book. It’s a slow growth, but it’s obvious and the ship incorporates certain stylistic changes into the narration. I found it to be very well done and likeable.

The plot is very slow. The story is recounting, after all, a very slow process. Colonization attempts are by their nature slow, especially when you consider the technical aspects of it, which Robinson does. The pacing is also a side-effect of the narrative voice. The AI struggles to convey the same sort of drama that the same story in the hands of a human might. The story may be slow-going at times, occasionally sprinkled with moments of panic, but it’s consistently detailed, extremely rich in thought, and always interesting.

There’s a distance between the narration and the characters. It’s told from a kind of familiar outsider’s perspective. As a result, the story doesn’t convey all of the immediate emotional changes that the characters are going through. Again, this is a limitation of the AI narrator who cannot really speculate outside of themselves. This improves as time goes on and as the AI becomes more advanced. The characters remain at a distance, even those of whom the AI is fond.

The character growth was a bit dissatisfying. The main character is, in a sense, the AI whose philosophical dilemmas are more of the emotional crux of the book. The population takes on a secondary role and suffers for it. Overall, though a weakness, it wasn’t dislikeable. I found that I really liked the development in how the AI presents each character’s growth as the level of reflectiveness in the AI changes.

My biggest complaint about the book is actually the ending. There’s a lot of political strife midway through the book and an internal splintering of the population occurs. This was interesting to say the least, but there’s little follow up on some of the factions post-conflict. I would have liked to see more. Part of this is due to the limitations of the narrator. However, the last 50 or so pages is told from an omniscient point of view and so, the lack of follow up loses its understandability. Additionally, I thought that the parts told by the omniscient point of view didn’t actually add to the story overall; instead, it detracted a bit from some of the better plot points.

Regardless, this is one of my favorite books of the year. It’s fantastic. If you like hard scifi, this is one to blow you away. If you’re more on the emotional-philosophical side of the scifi spectrum, there’s a lot here for you as well.

Spotlight on Graphic Novels | Black Science

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Rick Remender’s Black Science is one of the more interesting science fiction comics available. In it, Remender and co. present a science team working on creating a device that allows them to navigate the multiverse. It goes, quite predictably, awry. The cast is sent spiraling uncontrollably through universe after universe and is pitted against a variety of dangers.

The story follows scientist and anarchist-now-working-for-the-MAN Grant. After spending upwards of a decade working on devices known as “pillars,” he finally manages to get them working. His first test is to do an actual jump between worlds. The crew is about to launch their first human test–unapproved. But the pillar has been sabotaged.

The characters in Black Science are very likeable. They’re all given fairly extensive backgrounds and their relationships to one another are complex to say the least. The dynamic between the explorers– self-absorbed leader, his followers, and his jaded and neglected children– make for one of the most interesting aspects of the storytelling.

Black Science, Vol. 2: Welcome, Nowhere TP

Some of the plot points I’m not a huge fan of. Some of the characters, in particular a Native-American-esq shaman with magic healing powers, wore a little thin. The nice part of the story setup, though, is that it is self-correcting. Each event has the potential to be undone or redone in the next universe. Versions of the same characters can interact and effect the plot. It can be overly confusing, but also means that when something I don’t like happens, it may not stay that way.

The art is amazing. It’s dark but also vibrant. The characters are ridiculously expressive. The team that works on the art has really tapped into the visuals that can enhance the story and the dynamism that makes science fiction great.

While some of the story is going to need to be ironed out as it progresses, I think that the story is engaging and worth the read.

Review | Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

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So, it’s not a secret that I’m a Nnedi Okorafor fan. I like her blend of fantasy, social commentary and emotional honesty. Binti boasts all of these traits. In her newest novella, a 97 pager unless my kindle lies to me, Okorafor tells the story of a young girl who leaves her village and people to go study mathematics among the stars. This is Okorafor’s first “Outer Space” story and I was ridiculously excited to read it. As in, staying up until midnight when it was downloaded on kindle and proceeding to read until  two a.m. excited.

Binti, is from a small cloistered village. Though her people are extremely talented mathematically they are isolated from the general population. Binti has never left her village. When she’s offered a spot off-world at one of the most prestigious universities,  Binti decides to go against her family’s wishes and leave to pursue her education. But, going away from home is more dangerous than Binti had imagined and she’ll have to use her skills as a harmonizer to survive.

Binti’s abilities in mathematics are really cool. She does what’s called treeing, finding the patterns in mathematics in a trance-like state. She also is able to tap into some really cool technology.

Okorafor often talks about the way that we see other groups, especially those whose habits and appearance are clearly different than our own. One of the things I really liked about this is that Okorafor (1) doesn’t pretend that being among aliens will somehow magically turn the world post-racial, and (2) the treatment Binti receives from the dominant human group is problematic, but extremely subtle. Things like people touching Binti’s hair without asking or even knowing her create a subtle, but impactful sense of the culture.

The story has a great sense of excitement, without being overly action-packed. Binti’s ship is boarded and while it is, at first, quite dramatic and violent, a lot of time is spent talking about the consequences of a violent boarding. In that way, I think it satisfies a lot of both the action and emotional factors I like in a story.

There are some plot holes– communication between the aliens and the humans is supposed to be a fairly rare thing (only two people can communicate between the species), but there’s a treaty in place. Some of the story points could use some more development, particularly after Binti’s ship lands at University. Similarly, I could have handled more character development.  Mostly those weaknesses come down to me wanting to see more of the world.

The story is well done overall. I think this length was a bonus for Okorafor. She writes a lot of her short fiction and then expands on those stories to create her novels. I think this was a happy medium for her writing style. It was enjoyable, despite me thinking that some of the story points needed more development.

*Note: After posting this review, I did receive a copy of Binti for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*